This Was the Cold War Secret, But Not Anymore

December 27, 2011, By Sanjeev Ramachandran

Listen up. This is the story of a group of people who they were forbidden to speak about the greatest achievement of their professional lives.

But now that the program dubbed the Big Bird has been declassified, a group of retired co-workers from the former Perkin-Elmer Corp saw no reason why they should keep silence on it.

The KH-9 Hexagon, or Big Bird was considered the most successful space spy satellite program of the Cold War era.

From 1971 to 1986 a total of 20 satellites were launched, each containing 60 miles of film and sophisticated cameras that orbited the earth snapping vast, panoramic photographs of the Soviet Union, China and other potential foes.

Secrecy was the obvious concern. It was impossible to conceal the launches at Vandenberg Air Force base in California, and aviation magazines made several references to “Big Bird.” In 1975, a piece on the TV news magazine “60 Minutes” on space reconnaissance described an “Alice in Wonderland” world, where American and Soviet intelligence officials knew of each other’s “eyes in the sky”. But no one confirmed the programs or spoke about them publicly.

“My name is Al Gayhart and I built spy satellites for a living,” announced the 64-year-old retired engineer to the stunned bartender in his local tavern as soon as he learned of the declassification. He proudly repeats the line any chance he gets. All the declassified details have been unveiled, thanks to Helen O’Neil at the Associated press.

It must have been like a Hollywood movie; the hiring frenzy that attracted the attention of top engineers from around the Northeast, and Perkin-Elmer commissioning a new 270,000-square-foot (25,000-square-meter) building for Hexagon.

Clearance could take up to a year. During that time, employees worked on relatively minor tasks in a building dubbed “the mushroom tank”; so named because everyone was in the dark about what they had actually been hired for.

Joseph Prusak, 76, spent six months in the tank. When he was finally briefed on Hexagon, Prusak, who had worked as an engineer on earlier civil space projects, wondered if he had made the biggest mistake of his life.

“I thought they were crazy,” he says. “They envisaged a satellite that was 60-foot (18-meter) long and 30,000 pounds (13,600 kilograms) and supplying film at speeds of 200 inches (500 centimeters) per second. The precision and complexity blew my mind.”

“We were like the guys who worked on the first atom bomb,” said Oscar Berendsohn, 87, who helped design the optics system. “It was more than a sworn oath. We had been entrusted with the security of the country. What greater trust is there?”

And it was all high-tech. This was light years before Google Earth,” Prusak said. “And we could clearly see the pool in my backyard.”

According to the National Reconnaissance Office, a single Hexagon frame covered a ground distance of 370 nautical miles (680 kilometers), about the distance from Washington to Cincinnati. Early Hexagons averaged 124 days in space, but as the satellites became more sophisticated, later missions lasted twice as long.

Among other successes, Hexagon is credited with providing crucial information for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s.

 

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